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On Saturday, hundreds braved the first snow of the year outside BJ’s Wholesale Club in Fairfax to get a live glimpse at Sarah Palin, there to sign copies of her new memoir, Going Rogue. Having filed into the shopping center’s parking lot, the Palinites were sitting ducks for reporters with questions like this one: What does Sarah mean for women?
“I think she speaks her mind, and I think sometimes she speaks a little bit unguarded, so she is a little—she’s not conformed to speaking planned speech. Planned. It’s not planned,” Dee, a Palin supporter from Haymarket, Va., explained. “So I think she speaks her thoughts, and I think that she goes ahead and talks. I think she’s a strong woman. And she allows herself to express that … she’s not afraid to speak. And she’s fairly attractive, and that doesn’t seem to interfere with her being intelligent.”
“As a younger female, I like the fact that she has her own opinions and is not afraid to share them with others,” Chantilly, Va.’s Celia Coughlin submitted. “Also, that she can stand on her own and pave her own path and not really follow the line of any particular thing.”
Elizabeth from Gainesville, Va., says: “For women, she represents principles, life principles, and for the country she represents principles also.”
“I think she’s representing the women the way they should be,” says Patrick Darby of Rockville, Md. “You know, independent, strong, capable of doing whatever she wants to do, standing up for moral issues. And rights.”
Who could ever argue with “rights”? Or with refusing to conform to “speaking planned speech”? Therein lies the appeal of the Palin as culture warrior. Since she debuted on the national scene last summer, conservatives have attempted to corral this outspoken personality into a politically expedient persona: Palin as feminist. The November issue of conservative magazine Newsmax featured Palin on the cover, under the headline “Sarah Palin and the Leaders of the Newer Feminism.”
In the issue, Newsmax situates some notorious female conservatives, like Palin and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, alongside more traditional feminist icons, like Ms. Magazine executive editor Katherine Spillar and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Pegging Palin, darling to anti-feminist voters everywhere, as America’s hottest new feminist is a clever trick. As the crowd at BJ’s attests, Palin’s feminism contains none of the messy political agendas of former feminist waves—it is all personality, all self-reliance, and no politics. It’s about speaking your mind, even when you don’t know what you’re talking about.
It’s a bizarre twist on the old feminist adage that the “personal is the political.” Instead of identifying the structural influences over the day-to-day lives of women, this feminism focuses tightly on choices that have been fully operational for decades: Pants or skirt? Family or career and family? Maybelline or Cover Girl?
In “newer feminism,” every woman’s choices are valued—no matter what those choices mean for other women. Schlessinger isn’t an enforcer of rigid gender roles; she’s a facilitator of women’s choices. Palin’s opposition to abortion rights and comprehensive sex education isn’t anti-feminist; it is her choice to deny reproductive choices to other women. Under this model, Girls Gone Wild founder Joe Francis isn’t an exploiter; he’s a liberator of women’s breasts.
Last fall, Palin did some yeoman’s work in the rebranding of the “F-word.” After telling Katie Couric that she was a “feminist who believes in equal rights,” Palin quickly added that she believed that all of feminism’s work had already been achieved. This “newer” feminism isn’t shy about devaluing feminism: The Newsmax report casually accuses Gloria Steinem of “man-hating,” celebrates Schlessinger’s statement that feminism has “turned the family life upside down” as a welcome “departure from the feminism of old,” and raises the bogeyman of feminist “bra-burning” four times. In her contribution to the Newsmax piece, FoxNews.com writer Andrea Tantaros floats a new definition of feminism: “choice.” Feminism, she writes, is now “defined by each and every woman.”
The democratization of feminism brings us back to the parking lot outside of BJ’s Wholesale Club. If feminism is now “defined by each and every woman,” why not by Mary Ellen Hood, a D.C. resident who eschews politics but loves Sarah Palin?
“I’m not so sure I would put a label on her as a feminist,” says Hood of Palin. “She presents herself feminine … The impression is that feminists are women who don’t like to value their feminine qualities, and they like to put it down and be like a man, and I don’t think that’s appropriate for women. I kind of like her in that regard, that she’s sort of celebrating her womanhood as well.”
Loretta Teele of Fairfax is also more comfortable defining Palin in opposition to feminism than in concert with it. “She’s more godly, loving, and she’s more into her family,” says Teele. “She’s not out there like some of the past feminists—and I do not want to call names—that are bashing men and everybody around them. Feminists have a tendency to bash men. They’re cruel, and she’s not that.”
Caroline, a Herndon resident, is open to seeing Palin as a “new” feminist. “I think in a way. You know, not in the classic kind—you know, I came of age in the feminist revolution and there was a lot of kind of anti-male and anti-traditional female roles, like kids. There was a touch of that, there, back in the old days. And so, in that sense, she’s surely not. She kind of does kind of integrate it all—family, husband, everything, so I do think that that is really good.”
Others aren’t budging. “A feminist? Maybe borderline a little bit,” says Coughlin. “But I don’t really see her—no, not really.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” confirms Dee.
Feminism is now “defined by each and every woman,” and some women are still content to define the movement as those godless, mannish, childless specimens of women who hate men. The latest wave of the women’s movement is all about women having choices—as long as they make the right ones. Call it “newer” feminism, or Sarah Palin feminism, or anti-feminist feminism—just make sure you get a woman to say it, to make sure that it will be above all criticism.